Sunday, July 20, 2008

Animal Crossing the generation gap

Rough Guides’ mission, it seems to me, is to illuminate specialist subjects for the non-specialist audience. Just as travel writers with years of experience in a country let the reader in on their favourite haunts, the Rough Guide to iPods offers a host of tips that even longtime iPod-owners might not discover on their own. When it comes to videogames, though, there’s a large specialist audience out there, and it’s at these knowledgeable gamers that much writing on videogames is aimed. With the Rough Guide to Videogames, we wanted to write a book that, without dumbing down or diminishing the subject, would be accessible to any intelligent reader, young or old, male or female, gamer or not. Naturally we cover some tough and uncompromising games that wouldn’t be first pick for the newbie gamer – Ninja Gaiden springs immediately to mind – but there are also plenty in there that don’t demand a longtime gamer’s skills or interests.

Take, for example, Animal Crossing, the first of the Canon entries. Here’s an excerpt:
Weeds have taken over your carefully planted garden; cockroaches scuttle across your birch flooring; there’s a stack of mail you haven’t opened; you’ve missed countless neighbours’ birthdays – in fact you’ve not seen another soul for weeks. No, you haven’t been spending too much time playing videogames, but too little in Animal Crossing: Wild World. Because when you’re not tending to this weird, offbeat version of village life, it carries on without you. This is not seriously strategic sim material. For a start, the other inhabitants are talking animals, and you spend much of your time interacting with them: stopping for a chat, visiting their homes, sending and receiving mail, sharing gossip and exchanging advice. And each of your neighbours has his or her own little phrases and in-jokes, even a special nickname just for you. All of which sounds too twee for words, so it’s just as well that most conversations are funny, absurd and usually both, even turning snappy if someone’s in a bad mood.
It’s the epitome of cuteness, there’s no doubt. And while this can be offputting to some (and in a fine case of gender stereotyping, it was me who wrote about it, just as my co-author wrote another canon entry, Gears of War), look past it and you’ll discover an engaging gameplay experience. One that you can enjoy for literally years, spending as much or as little time on it as you like (there’s nothing to win or lose). It’s also a game that effortlessly bridges the generation gap.

This theory proved itself last New Year’s Eve, when I visited friends for the usual excess of drinking and eating, interrupted only by the chimes of Big Ben. I’d promised to take my DS and Animal Crossing, a game my friends’ daughters Lucy (8) and Hannah (6) also owned, because thanks to the DS’s local network facility (or WiFi, if you’re not in the same place), the game allows your character to visit another player’s town. I hadn’t expected to be playing myself, but nonetheless ended up spending a chunk of the evening meeting Lucy’s animal friends, who were just as quirky as mine. After a while, I handed the DS over to Hannah and retreated to the grownups – and the vodka.

Perhaps they enjoyed the experience on a different level to me – they had certainly spent a lot more time getting to know their animal neighbours – but however you approach it, Animal Crossing (soon to come out on the Wii, too) has appeal for both older and younger players. In my case, the village had been somewhat neglected in the previous months, but thanks to Hannah and Lucy, the next time I turned on my DS I found that the weeds had been cleared and my house even sported some nice new furniture. Outsourcing indeed.

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